"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       


A Few Words about Harper Lee’s Enduring Voice

July 13th, 2015 by

It’s cool to see the release of a literary novel generating the sort of buzz usually reserved for a new Harry Potter book or a royal birth. But here it is. Many people I know—adults, all of them—months ago ordered their reserve copy in anticipation of the July 14 release of Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s first novel in nearly 60 years.

Since the Beatlemania of the 1960s, I have always tended to view social trends and events from the sidelines (right, I haven’t ordered my advance copy of Lee’s book). While high school peers raced off to concerts when the J. Geils or Steve Miller Bands came to town, I always stayed back. It was never enough to just be a fan. I wanted to study the guitar work on the record. Yes, I was that kind of nerd. I never even saw The Who, my favorite band of the era. I am a spectator to the spectators, if you will. So today, most of the time, when some cultural icon or event rises among certain populations to become a feverish, round-the-clock obsession, I feel like an alien visiting a strange planet. I feel a need to study the strange new desire. I am still not sure that I will get around to seeing the new Disney Star Wars feature until after the New Year.

Harper Lee’s new novel (it is actually older than To Kill a Mockingbird) is one I want to read. But the story behind the publication of this book—its place in the author’s writing life—sounds almost more interesting than the story told in the book. As a side note, it appears that somebody in some marketing department was quite brilliant; the marketing of this book fits the pattern that most marketing specialists tell writers to work from. Write a good first book, they say. Harper Lee’s first book was so good that it created a lot of fans. It had a movie made. It has become, along with Lord of the Flies and The Great Gatsby, a stalwart in the high school canon. So the excitement and awareness are perfectly understandable, even with the generally tepid, questioning first reviews of her new novel.

Indeed, the reviews are interesting. The LA Times on Monday noted the dark presence of a complex, troubling, even racist Atticus Finch, Scout’s father. David Ulin, the reviewer, also reveals that the novel tends to “meander,” perhaps the sort of thing we might expect from a first effort. There is also the question of editors. Harper Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, who figured hugely in getting her to rewrite what is now being billed as Go Set a Watchman into the bestselling To Kill a Mocking Bird, is not a part of this publication effort.

All signs point to a glimpse of that “man behind the curtain” we usually have our attention diverted from. But this also is of real interest to me—and to many people who are interested in creativity and how creative people work, grow, and find their best ideas. We know that great works don’t simply happen overnight. Artists discover their voice, their genre, and their best ideas after they work at their craft for years. Even the Beatles played in German night clubs for several years before they wrote their first big hits. It seems pretty clear to me that this is what we are going to see with this new publication: Harper Lee had to write Go Set a Watchman before she could write To Kill a Mockingbird.

After the buzz fades away, I suspect that her great work will remain as part of the canon. Meanwhile, this new work is going to endure for all of us interested in how real writers and artists develop and come to write their best work.

Work Cited
Ulin, David L. “Darker Side of Scout’s World.” Los Angeles Times. 13 July 2015: E1-2.

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